To seek inspiration for today’s post, I turned to Museum Memories, Volume 1, one of the lesson books published by a lineage organization to which I belong, Daughters of Utah Pioneers. I found some gems in the December lesson, including the molasses cookie recipe from pioneer times the instructor passed out and which I have been using since 2009 to make my Christmas molasses gingerbread cookies. Since molasses gingerbread cookies are one of my top five favorite Christmas cookies, I decided to focus today on molasses.
A pioneer Christmas story involving molasses:
The lesson from the above-mentioned book started with the insightful pioneer story, “Christmas on the Homestead Farm” by Ellen Jacklin Tracy. I am sharing an excerpt which relates to molasses:
Winter came early that fall. All along the bench in American Fork, where the families lived on land they were homesteading, parents and children had worked hard every day, but many of their crops were still in the ground. In our home, father had been sick most of the summer and toward fall have been taken to a hospital in Salt Lake City for an operation. Trips mother had made to the city by horse and buggy to see father had delayed the harvesting of the crops. Father was now at home but unable to work. The apples had been picked, potatoes dug and stored in the cellar, but the sugar beets, our only cash crop, were still in the ground. Taxes must be paid as well as hospital and doctor bills, and there was very little money.
...Warmer days finally came, melting most of the snow and ice so our family could work to complete the sugar beet harvest. Mother and the older children worked hard to get the beets out of the cold ground. The beets were then topped and loaded on the big beet dump wagon. Only one load could be harvested each day. The beets were then taken to the Lehi Sugar Factory or to the Wing dump to be unloaded into train cars.
Life went on in that cozy little house. Thanksgiving came and went, and Christmas was hurrying towards us. Our parents were thankful for their children, the two warm rooms in the little cabin, and the food that had been raised on the farm. Since I was the oldest daughter, mother confided her worries to me. There was no money for Christmas, which would soon be coming. We couldn't even afford to go to the store and buy material to make new clothing. Finally, mother and I decided to hunt out some scraps of cloth and hem a handkerchief for each family member. Father kept a few stands of bees, so we had honey, and the sugar cane that we had could be made into molasses. We would make some candy, and there were plenty of apples stored in the cellar. These plans, meager as they seemed, brought some comfort to our parents, and the days and weeks hurried by towards Christmas....
What exactly is molasses?
Molasses is a viscous product resulting from refining sugarcane or sugar beets into sugar. Molasses varies by amount of sugar, method of extraction, and age of the plant. Sugarcane molasses is primarily used for sweetening and flavoring foods in the United States, Canada, and elsewhere. Molasses is a defining component of fine commercial brown sugar.
Due to the presence of many salts in sugar beet molasses, it is foul-smelling and unpalatable, so it is mostly used as an animal feed additive.
In other words, sugar beet molasses smells and tastes nasty. We only want to use molasses made from sugar cane.
Sugar beets closer to home.
They grow sugar beets in the San Joaquin Valley where I live. In among the almond and peach orchards we can find a variety of row crops grown, including sugar beets.
I remember decades ago as a young mother I sat in on a conversation taking place between some older men who jokingly lamented they had been born too early. By the time of their discussion, machines had been developed to harvest sugar beets and prepare them for the sugar-processing plants. However, in their youth, harvesting was done by hand. They were paid small sums for wages to work all day at the back-breaking task of pulling the beets out of the ground, shaking off the loose soil, “topping” them (cutting off the stems and leaves), and then tossing the beets into to the bins.
Processing sugar beets stinks to high heaven. When I first moved to the San Joaquin Valley, I lived in a city about a twenty minute drive from Manteca where a sugar beet processing plant used to operate. Since the prevailing winds tend to blow from the west, the plant was built on the east side of Manteca. Unfortunately, the freeway was built immediately to the east of the plant. When driving north on Highway 99, we always knew when we were passing Manteca.
Several decades ago they built the Highway 120 bypass. My husband worked on that job. The builder needed more dirt, so he struck a deal with the sugar beet plant. His construction guys would dig out their holding ponds in exchange for some of the dirt on the plant’s property.
My husband operated a scraper. He said as bad as it smelled driving past that area, nothing compared to the stink that hit them when they first skimmed the tops of those ponds. The concentrated sugar beet waste was so sticky, the treads of the scrapers (scrapers are HUGH pieces of equipment with pretty powerful engines) stuck in it and bulldozers were needed to pull them free. The men could not eat on site during that job; they had to escape elsewhere far away because the smell made their food taste too foul to eat. He was glad when that job was over.
Yet, out of the stink and mess of processing sugar beets comes much of the sugar we enjoy.
The sugar beet plant in Manteca was dismantled years ago. It took some time, but we can now drive past the former location without having to hold our breath.
In dark rye breads or other whole grain breads
In some cookies and pies
In gingerbread (particularly in the Americas)
In barbeque sauces
In beer styles such as stouts and porters
To stabilize emulsification of home-made vinaigrette
The principal ingredient in the distillation of rum
As a humectant in jerky processing
A source for yeast production
And now, the good part…
The following is the cookie recipe I have been using these past several years from the above-mentioned book. Keep in mind the recipe does not call for a set amount of flour, only enough to make a stiff dough [as in, the dough no longer sticks to your mixing spoon and fingers like the worst goo you've ever tangled with]. This makes a lot of cookie dough, so you may want to refrigerate half of it to bake later, or cut the recipe in half until you decide whether or not it is one of your favorites like it is mine.
GRANDMA’S SOFT GINGER SNAPS
1 cup sugar 4 level teaspoons soda
1 cup molasses 1 teaspoon cloves (I tend to short this)
1 teaspoon ginger 2/3 cup shortening
2 eggs pinch of salt
1 teaspoon cinnamon Water and flour
Use enough water to dissolve soda. [Add ingredients, flour last.] Stir until dough is stiff with flour. Pinch off pieces the size of a walnut. Roll into balls. [I sometimes like to roll my dough balls into granulated sugar.] Place one inch apart on a cookie sheet. [If you have not yet discovered the wonder of parchment paper, try it.] Bake in a moderate oven [if still using the oven on a wood-burning stove, otherwise, try about 350-375 degrees farenheit.] (Watch carefully as these cookies burn easily!)
[If you don't roll them in granulated sugar before baking, try dusting the tops with powdered sugar after baking but while they are still warm. Or, if you are really creative, frost them with a sugar glaze.]
|Chewy Ginger Cookies (not mine) ctsy Alcineo
I do not have a new Christmas story for this year, but I have three from previous years if you have not yet read them. Please CLICK HERE to reach my Amazon Author Page for book descriptions and links.
To sweeten the deal, I will send by Book Funnel one ebook copy of Too Old for Christmas to one person chosen at random who leaves a comment about their favorite Christmas cookies in the comments section ON THIS BLOG. A winner will be chosen the evening of Tuesday, December 11th.
(As long as they were not baked too long, the cookies featured in the above recipe were probably soft enough for even Sean and Ona to eat.)
International Daughters of Utah Pioneers, Museum Memories; Salt Lake City, USA:2009, pgs 153-54, 157; (originally taken from Anderson, Patricia Ellie, The Secret of a Pioneer Christmas; A Precious Children Publication, pgs 24, 39.)